Should we torture one person to save many? What is fairness? To accompany BBC4's justice season, philosopher Michael Sandel explains why justice is at the heart of contemporary political debateby Nigel Warburton / January 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Nigel Warburton: For me the word justice seems to imply that there is some injustice in the world—it seems to be something like a legal term almost, that you want to set things to rights. Is that how you understand the word?
Michael Sandel: Well the simplest way of understanding justice is giving people what they deserve. This idea goes back to Aristotle. The real difficulty begins with figuring out who deserves what and why.
Broadly speaking I think there are three answers to the question ‘What is justice?’ There’s the utilitarian answer which says justice means maximising happiness. Answer number two, given by Immanuel Kant, which says that justice is a matter of respecting human dignity, certain categorical duties and rights. And the third answer is the answer that Aristotle gave: justice means giving people what they deserve, where what they deserve depends on their virtue and depends on sorting out hard questions about the good life.
NW: Let’s take Bentham and utilitarianism first. Jeremy Bentham is famous as a major proponent of perhaps the most straightforward kind of utilitarianism.